Botswana revives ostrich farming


An ostrich farm in the Oudtshoorn district.
Ostrich meat is an increasingly popular low-
fat alternative to red meat. (Image: Rodger
Bosch, MediaClub South Africa. For more
free photos, visit the image library.)

The six-colour South African flag made
entirely of ostrich feathers.
(Image: Ostrich Business Chamber)

Africa-shaped keyrings made from high-
quality ostrich leather.
(Image: Ostrich Business Chamber)

Janine Erasmus

South Africa is known internationally as the leader in ostrich farming. Now the country’s neighbour, Botswana, is to boost ostrich farming through the new Ostrich Out-grower programme. The scheme is driven by the Department of Animal Health and Production, which is responsible for improving sustainable livestock production and management practices.

The world’s biggest bird has been a major source of income for South Africa – after gold, diamonds and wool, it was the country’s fourth largest export as early as the 19th century. The South African Ostrich Business Chamber says that the industry contributes R1.2-billion (US$98-million) to South Africa’s economy every year.

Now Botswana is hoping to cash in, with the establishment of a scheme that will revive the neglected ostrich industry in that country. The out-grower scheme is to be implemented and managed by Talana Farms, a subsidiary of the Botswana Development Corporation.

Feathers flew in 2006 when frustrated farmers in Botswana blamed the government for the failure of the ostrich industry. In response, the government established an ostrich multiplication unit at Dibete, located north-east of the capital Gaborone, later that year, to help with the supply of birds. That, and now the out-grower scheme are indications of the authorities’ willingness to improve the situation.

The government is ploughing BWP13-million ($1.6-million) into the multiplication unit up to 2009 to help it reach sustainability. Botswana has the largest number of ostriches in Africa, most of them wild, and the industry holds huge economic potential but has laboured to fulfil expectations.

An out-grower partnership generally involves an arrangement between landholders and a processing company for the production of certain products. The new programme involves the outsourcing of chick rearing to farmers on a contract basis, along with supervision and technical and veterinary support.

Talana Farms identifies suitable farmers and provides them with all the training and resources necessary to raise chicks. The farmers build paddocks with the materials supplied and buy day-old chicks from the Dibete unit. Once the chicks weigh about 60kg, Talana buys them back, rears them to an established size and then sells them.

There are five farmers in the scheme at the moment but Talana hopes that they will eventually have up to 50 participants.

Once ostrich production is again rolling along, the government will designate a company to run the country’s sole ostrich abattoir, which is owned by the Ministry of Agriculture but is leased to the Botswana Ostrich Company. The facility closed down temporarily after the slump in the ostrich industry but re-opened in October 2007. For reasons such as limited infrastructure, unreliable feed supply and scarcity of chicks, farmers have struggled to meet the multi-species abattoir’s capacity. It is currently slaughtering cattle as well.

Ostrich capital of the world

South Africa’s ostrich farming hub lies in Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo region of the Western Cape. The town is known as the ostrich capital of the world and is widely recognised as a source of top quality ostrich feathers, leather products and ostrich meat. Although there have been some significant slumps along the way, South Africa has managed to maintain the industry’s momentum.

The industry was initially built on the feather trade but today leather is the main reason for the country’s dominance in the global ostrich market. Ostrich meat is also a popular export and is recognised as the healthiest red meat available, with lower cholesterol and saturated fat content, and fewer kilojoules. The meat is sought after in South Africa and abroad, in line with the general trend towards healthier eating.

The South African ostrich feather duster is a profitable spin-off of ostrich farming. The item was invented in Johannesburg by a missionary and broom factory manager named Harry S. Beckner in 1903, although a patent had been filed in 1876. Beckner later took the technique to the US and started a feather duster company in Massachusetts. The Beckner Feather Duster Company, now the oldest US-based feather duster company, is still operational.

According to the local Ostrich Business Chamber, more than 65% of the world’s domesticated ostriches are found in South Africa, and the country is also responsible for 90% of all ostrich-related products globally.

The Ostrich Business Chamber has also embarked on a number of black empowerment initiatives to help emerging farmers in the ostrich industry. High start-up costs, inexperience, and risk of disease are factors that retard the growth of the industry, but the chamber has pledged to do its utmost to remove obstacles. The West Coast Ostrich Empowerment Project, the Klein Karoo Leather Goods Project, and the Southern Cape Ostrich Tanning in Mossel Bay are among the successful community-run projects already implemented.

Unlike the uncertainty of the early days, today’s blood lines are strong and the various products are increasingly sought after. Ostriches have been classified as farming stock in South Africa and are no longer subject to the regulations of the various conservation bodies.

World’s largest bird

The ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the only living species of the family Struthionidae and genus Struthio. However it shares the order Struthioniformes with other flightless birds such as the emu, rhea and kiwi. In South Africa the predominant species is S. c. australis, or the southern ostrich.

The ostrich is flightless because of its selfishness, according to the ancient San legend. The story tells of Mantis, the Bushman demi-god, who became aware that Ostrich was keeping a secret to himself. Ostrich’s food always smelt delicious but he never shared his method, and this prompted Mantis to stealthily observe him. He noticed Ostrich taking fire from under his wing and using it to cook his food, then tucking it back under his wing after the meal.

Mantis wanted the fire but he knew Ostrich would not give it to him, so he planned to trick the bird. Mantis called Ostrich to the site of a huge plum tree and encouraged him to eat the fruit, adding that the best ones were at the top. As Ostrich stretched further and further he eventually opened his wings to balance himself, giving Mantis the opportunity to snatch the fire. Ostrich was very ashamed and from that moment on has walked with his wings pressed close to his side, refusing to fly. Mantis subsequently gave the fire to the San.

Ostrich country

The Karoo’s hot, dry summers and mild, sunny winters are the ideal climate for ostrich breeding. The dryness also helps prevent the outbreak of disease.

The first South African ostrich farm was established in 1864. However, ostriches, which are native to north, south and east Africa, had already lived in the area for hundreds of years. The indigenous San people used their meat and eggs, retaining the strong shell to use as water containers, and storing water in buried egg caches for emergencies.

By the 19th century there was increasing demand for ostrich feathers from other parts of the British Empire, and canny farmers in the Oudtshoorn area seized the opportunity to begin an ostrich domestication process. The ostriches, placed in vast fenced-off areas, did not take long to begin breeding and by 1865 the annual feather harvest weighed in at a hefty 8 600kg.

During these early days farmers faced challenges such as high mortality amongst chicks due to predators and disease, but the invention in 1869 of the ostrich incubator changed the face of ostrich farming. Arthur Douglass, the Scottish inventor of the device, was a resident of Albany, Eastern Cape, at the time, and his invention was one of two major developments in the industry. The other was the introduction of lucerne as a feeding crop around the same time.

The birds thrived and in the decade from 1865 to 1875 their number rose from a paltry 80 to over 22 000. Breeding pairs sold for up to £1 000 ($1 500).

Overcoming setbacks

During the early part of the 20th century, the ostrich industry in other countries began to take off. South African farmers realised they may be facing stiff competition, but resolved to fight back by producing the best feathers in the world. Meanwhile, RW Thornton of the Grootfontein Agricultural College had conducted research into feathers from all parts of the world and identified the Evans-Lovemore strain of the Barbary ostrich as the source of the best, and cheapest, feathers.

An expedition to find this Barbary ostrich, an almost-mythical creature with superior “double floss” feathers, red skin and a bald head, was launched. The members of the expedition were Thornton and two other colleagues. After many trials the team returned with 141 magnificent specimens, which were cross-bred with home-grown birds to form the new nucleus of the local ostrich farming industry.

The new arrivals adjusted well to the Karoo, bringing with them a bumper crop of the finest quality feathers. Wealthy farmers, or feather barons, built lavish and opulent mansions known as feather palaces, constructed mostly from sandstone and influenced by contemporary art nouveau. The homestead on the farm Safari, known as Welgeluk, is a national monument.

Oudtshoorn earned the nickname of Little Jerusalem, not only because of the large Jewish population but in reference to the many sandstone buildings found in the Israeli capital.

In 1914 a huge surplus in feather stock and the outbreak of World War I caused a temporary plunge in the ostrich industry and farmers who one day had been millionaires were penniless the next. By the end of the war in 1918 there were still 314 000 domesticated ostriches in South Africa but by 1930 there were only 32 000, and by 1940 there were only 2 000 ostriches left in Oudtshoorn.

Tourist attraction

After World War II the industry began to recover and besides feathers and skins, it took a new direction – into tourism. The nearby Cango Caves brought many visitors to the region and they naturally took an interest in the flocks of odd-looking birds. Today, show farms such as Highgate in Oudtshoorn offer participation in routine activities such as feather clipping and ostrich feeding, provide information on every aspect of ostrich farming, and allow chick cuddling and ostrich rides.

Visitors may also get the chance to literally walk on eggshells, except that these are the immensely strong ostrich eggs, which on average measure 15cm in length and 13cm in width and weigh 1.5kg. The eggs must be this strong in order to withstand the weight of the adult bird during incubation.

Tourism, and a growing demand for leather, caused ostrich numbers to rise from the 1930 low of 32 000 to over 100 000 by the 1980s. Most of these were found in Oudtshoorn. Today the national ostrich population is stable at around that number.

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